Op-Ed by RBA CEO/President Al Samuels

Recently a national real estate data company listed Rockland County as the county with the second highest property tax burden in the entire United States. Naturally, this caught my eye as we don’t need more negative stories that might discourage businesses from locating here. The Rockland Business Association, having previously engaged Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress to help us unravel Rockland’s financial issues, again has contracted with them, this time on the tax issue. But it will take some time for them to help us understand why Rockland taxes are so high and what, if anything, we can do about it.

While Pattern for Progress is doing its work, the RBA would like to bring this issue to the attention of the businesses and residents of the county, particularly now in election season, in an effort to initiate what we hope is a constructive conversation. So far, all I can factually say is, according to the real estate company analysis, the top 10 counties with the highest tax rates are in relatively close proximity to New York City.  Number one is Westchester, number two is Rockland and three through 10 are on Long Island or in New Jersey, all close to the city.

The geographic issue is interesting. Does being near NYC cause us to have higher taxes because land values are higher and therefore taxes are higher?  Some might say to me, “Al, quit your griping, look at all the jobs we get by being near NYC.”  And, in a way, they’d be right: About 20 percent of our workforce is employed in the city and an even greater number work in businesses somehow connected to NYC. It’s a huge part of our economy.

50. So, we’re close to New York City. But maybe that is not the whole answer.  Of all 50 states in the nation, only one forces its counties to pick up part of the cost of Medicaid.  Yup…..New York.  The only one of all 50.  The cost of Medicaid in New York State is $55 billion – among the highest in the nation. The state pays 34 percent ($18 billion) and the county governments – with our local tax dollars – pay 16 percent ($8.8 billion). So maybe we should turn our attention not to NYC but to Albany and ask, “Why are we the only state that forces its counties to pay a percentage of Medicaid?”

To those who have heard county leaders scream over the impact of state mandates on their county budgets we have to recognize that clearly this has something to do with it. But, all 62 counties are saddled with the same burden of unfunded mandates. We still need to know why these have greater impact in Rockland.

Even though county taxes are not the highest portion of any property tax bill (generally, it’s the school tax), the county tax still puts a hurt on us. How can we forget that, just recently, Rockland County was on the verge of bankruptcy. While we did get to bond our indebtedness, we will have to pay that $96 million back and that is something known as debt service which is paid through – you guessed it – more taxes.

Speaking of more taxes, let’s look at what makes up another big piece of the pie and that is our town taxes. Here we go again. For example, which town pays the most for its police in all of New York State? Well, that would be Clarkstown. Other towns in Rockland have costly departments, too. These all add up as part of the local tax bills! And, some of our school districts are among the most generous in the state. But what can we do about it?

Well, one way to reduce the cost to each taxpayer is to reduce government and school spending, another is to increase the number of taxable properties and taxpayers so that the tax burden is divided among more businesses and people. In New York where so many of our services are based on the property tax there are only a couple of ways to reduce costs — improve efficiency of the delivery of services so it costs less or simply cut services. Not so easy when roughly 70 percent of a school district’s cost, for instance, is based upon salaries and benefits and those aren’t going down.  Of course, we could increase the number of ratables by increasing the number of taxable business enterprises. So by approving projects like Legoland or the Haverstraw Water Supply Project we can make a difference and  … no wait a minute, these projects aren’t going forward.  What about residential? Rockland is one of the few counties in the Hudson Valley that is still growing.  But the fastest growing portion of our population is the Jewish Orthodox and some – not all – do not pay full taxes because of religious exemptions.

So, what’s the head of a business association to do? I guess we start by just recognizing what is really happening in Rockland, that we really are one of the highest taxed counties in the US and that this is not so easy to change. But we can’t give up on this! If you don’t like the amount you are paying for taxes, Election Day is just around the corner.  We have to be sure to ask each candidate about their plan to reduce taxes? Do they have a plan to bring in more people and businesses to spread the tax burden to more payers? Doing nothing is not an option. Election season is a great time to start looking for answers. Some of the people who helped create this tax situation are again asking for your vote.  Maybe, they don’t deserve it.

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